Where the “streets” have a name - Mark Maxwell and friends take the message “out there” with Christian concert series

Aug 7, 2007 at 5:12 pm

When the Doobie Brothers first took it to the streets, I was living out my youth in a pastor’s home where Doobie Brothers records, or any other rock albums, weren’t allowed until I was darn near packing for college.

Today, of course, you can’t set foot in a suburban church and fail to be greeted by the growl of an electric guitar and the thunder of drums. Progress? Perhaps, but having been there from the start, I’m not buying into the line that this new facade is “seeker-sensitive,” intended to “attract the lost”: The louder, hipper music isn’t, and never was, about bringing “lost” sheep into the fold; it’s about keeping the “found” sheep from escaping.

The rhetoric is so much of a piece with other barriers that never fell between church and world that it’s hard to evade the cynical haze it emits — until Mark Maxwell, enthusiastic herald of Louisville’s most beloved musical dynasty, innocently points to the deficit and rolls up his sleeves. Lost sheep? We can do that ...

The result is “Takin’ It To The Streets,” a series of seven Christian concert events across seven months, featuring singers and bands from dozens of area churches, performing in venues that are, to say the least, unlikely: In June, Maxwell’s crowd invaded the Hard Rock Cafe, and in July, conquered Coyote’s. Next they sweep into Six Flags Kentucky Kingdom, this Sunday at 1 p.m., for seven hours of music on 10 stages, featuring a staggering total of 70 Christian bands.

“Our churches in our community have never held hands, have never gotten together on anything,” Maxwell said. “In the history of our city, we’ve never held hands. We’re all in our little camps, and we do what we do. This is an opportunity for us to connect with the community.”

Maxwell, 41, is a familiar face to musicians, club owners and event coordinators throughout the area, as a member of the family that owns and operates Mom’s Music, which has locations in Louisville and Jeffersonville. Coordinating the concert series, he is joined by Jeff Jackson of Childplace, a former youth pastor whose job is basically to follow along behind Maxwell, cleaning up after him.

“We’re essentially doing what Jesus did,” the 25-year-old Jackson said, citing the New Testament precedent of a Christ who didn’t loiter in synagogues, but instead hung out in what passed for Fourth Street Live in first-century Palestine. This, they both believe, is something the church has lost. “We always say, ‘Come to us, come to our church,’” Maxwell said. “We never go to them anymore. We put up this divide, saying this is the world out there, and this is what our world is here. We can’t talk about it till we get out there.”
All the same, these aren’t your grandparents’ tent revivals. “There’s no soapboxes, no speeches, no mass prayers going on with this,” Maxwell said. “This is music.”

Music it is, bargeloads of it, in every shape and color one might conceive. There is pop, hard rock, heavy metal, country, soul, traditional, folk, from bands with names like Wisdom’s Call, Unit 7, Remnant, Jericho Railroad, Tried by Fire, D2W, First Light and Reality Extreme, from churches of every denominational flavor and every quadrant of Louisville and Southern Indiana, Shelbyville, Fairdale, even Brandenburg.

Marketing potential aside — what sector of business doesn’t long to tap the evangelical demographic these days? — it wasn’t an easy sell to the club owners. Maxwell was told no repeatedly, but he had considerable street cred on his side: Few are the musicians and club owners in Louisville who aren’t in some way beholden to Mark’s living-legend father Marvin, be it for instruments, music lessons, sound equipment, event support or simple encouragement. “No” became “Yes.”
It paid off. The June and July events were standing-room only.

You don’t know my kind in your world, Michael McDonald said in the Doobies tune. More than ever, “Us” and “Them” pervades religious talk, however innocently, even in conversation with Maxwell — who emphatically grew up on both sides of the evangelical fence simultaneously, going to church on Sunday and playing clubs and festivals all the other days. The problem with that “Us/Them” language, and the challenge Maxwell faces in making the connection he so earnestly desires, is that “Us” gets to decide where all the lines are. One can’t help but wonder how “Them” feels about that.

Mike Cosper is “Us” by pedigree, a Christian musician raised in a church that is as white and suburban as it is possible to be. He is “Them” by choice, a founder of a hybrid community called Sojourn, which brings together “the overchurched and the unchurched,” he said.

Sojourn started out on Bardstown Road seven years ago but has since planted roots in Germantown, where the 31-year-old Cosper oversees music. Sojourn will be musically represented several times at Maxwell’s Six Flags event, but more importantly, the community captures the dynamic that “Streets” is trying to tap for the Christian mainstream.

“A lot of us grew up in the mainstream church,” he said, “and had come out of burn-out … and some who didn’t quite fit it. We saw a real need for something different, a little more communal, more organic.”

The result, a community now housed in an old elementary school building at the intersection of Germantown, the Highlands and Old Louisville, eschews the politics and barriers of mainstream Christianity.
“There’s a segment of the culture that the mainstream church has closed its doors to,” Cosper said. “The unchurched sees a prideful community that sees nothing wrong with itself. It’s not the way of Jesus. Jesus was in his own way excluded by the insiders of his day.

“We’ve been pretty intentional about counterbalancing the political mood of the church today,” he said. His “unchurched” members “might think Jesus is great, but George W. Bush, not so much. The political polarization of the church keeps people out. The church used to be reflective of the culture; today, that’s not the case at all.”

Culture, more than anything else, is Sojourn’s operational imperative, Cosper said; the music and art decorate an agenda that is all about urban renovation and service projects. No mega-church in the making here; it’s about restoring the home turf of those who don’t fit in elsewhere to something livable, something beautiful. Sojourn accepts them, body piercings and all, in a steady stream.

And now they’re making their way to Maxwell’s concerts, oblivious to their lack of mainstream virtues.
Jesus Loves Me and My Tattoos, announced the T-shirt of a young woman he saw at the June event. Rock.

The Doobies’ gospel is an authentic one: Takin’ it to the streets is relentlessly biblical, and it is high time the church noticed. It proceeds to Fourth Street Live and Phoenix Hill, where Maxwell has events scheduled in September and October, and more places beyond than could be easily listed. Maxwell intends for “Streets” to continue indefinitely, and anticipates two additional phases emerging in other media — television and the Internet. Takin’ it to the streets indeed.

To what end?
The day an agenda creeps into the enterprise is the day he’ll shut it down, Maxwell insisted. He wants to create connections between people, nothing more or less, and what they do with those connections is entirely up to them. This is no small thing, because there’s no shortage of Christian agendas these days, and Maxwell’s target audience has had a bellyful. Park the politics at the door, and just as well, because Mark Maxwell is not the most politically correct fellow to tumble out of the tree; but what then?

Well, food, for one thing, and loud cheers for that. Maxwell is integrating donated canned goods for church-sponsored food pantries into the “Streets” concept, which may not be particularly novel but definitely carries far more scent of the actual Christian gospel than Republican lawn signs. Jackson is at peace with characterizing the Gospel as a socially progressive force, rather than a political one: “A social gospel is doing essentially what Jesus did, feeding the hungry, healing the sick. Jesus walked where the people walked.”
Can music and cans of food really do a job? Cosper, like Maxwell, is optimistic. For him, it’s about identity, who we are, and that will take us far, and in the direction of one another.

“Music is a cultural expression that allows us to experience every tribe and tongue and people and nation,” he said. “It helps to ground a community with a sense of time and place. It seems to be a stamp, a mark, of a moment in time, reflecting who we are as a community, and who we are historically.”

The goodness and innocence of this thoughtful optimism brings on a longing: Can a good vibe really take us so far, can it really be that simple? And we are momentarily distracted from the fire-breathers among us, realizing that Mammon wears a cross on a chain, and everybody wants to rule the world. Except for the Mike Cospers, who just want to repaint it, and the Mark Maxwells, who just want everyone to start talking to each other again.

Fairly soon the time will tell …

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Takin’ It To The Streets
Six Flags Kentucky Kingdom
Sunday, Aug. 12, 1-8 p.m.
Park admission ($22.50) includes the concerts and all rides and attractions. Group rate (15 or more) is $19.99
Advance tickets: MOM’s Music, 1710 E. 10th St., Jeffersonville, Ind., or MOM’s Music, 1900 Mellwood Ave., Louisville